How to assemble six martial arts masters
on one stage… and not lose your mind!
“A Gaijin in Japan Ruffles a Few Feathers!”
Back in 1985 while living in Japan, I had a bright idea, or so I thought. The idea was to invite top aikido instructors from different organizations to appear together on the same stage to explain and demonstrate their approach to the art. Others had had similar ideas in the past, but no one had taken on the challenge of turning this concept into reality. I could never have imagined what would happen next.
The first step was to draw up a list of invitees, and assess the likelihood that each person might accept our proposal. Another consideration was how comfortable a given individual might feel in the presence of certain others. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. I can’t remember everyone’s name, but I can assure you the list read like a “Who’s Who” of top teachers in the aikido world. Naturally, at the head of the list was Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba. If he would agree to participate, then others might be more inclined to do so.
Consequently, we arranged a meeting with Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei, and one of my staff members and I visited his home on December 4, 1984. Our purpose was to explain the concept of the “Aikido Friendship Demonstration,” and to extend to him a personal invitation to attend. Doshu listened attentively to our proposal, and was keenly interested in knowing who else we were planning to invite. It would later become apparent that his interest was more than simple curiosity. As it turned out, Kisshomaru Sensei declined our invitation to participate citing some vague reasons which I don’t recall. To be quite honest, we anticipated this. In Japan, etiquette is everything, and what was important was to inform him and invite him first.
We published a short notice of the fact that we had met with Doshu to discuss the Friendship Demonstration in the December 1984 issue of “Aiki News.” I sensed it was important to have a written record of this fact, and my intuition proved correct. In any event, Doshu was later kind enough to write a greeting for the program we prepared for the demonstration.
A few weeks later after much scurrying about, the following six senseis had all agreed to appear: Yasuo Kobayashi, Mitsugi Saotome, Yoshio Kuroiwa, Kanshu Sunadomari, Shoji Nishio, and Morihiro Saito. Gozo Shioda, the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, had initially accepted our invitation, but later withdrew for reasons I may write about someday. (He did, however, send me a formal letter of apology, and appeared in the Friendship Demonstration the following year.)
What happened later, only a few short weeks before the demonstration, proved a nightmare. It turned out that pressure had been applied behind the scenes to convince several of the teachers to withdraw from the event. This was successful in the case of Shioda Sensei as mentioned above. In addition, four of the six participants informed us of their intention to withdraw after becoming nervous about participating. Everything about the event was done outside normal organizational channels. This was the main bone of contention, and some invitees were uncomfortable with the fact. Had these teachers actually withdrawn, it would have sunk the event and resulted in a catastrophic financial loss. We, as the organizers of the Friendship Demonstration, were fully committed by then.
The person who stepped in to save the day was Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei. He adamantly refused to yield to the pressure, and insisted on honoring his promise. Kobayashi Sensei’s act of courage while under a lot of peer pressure earned my eternal gratitude. One by one, I and my staff made phone calls to the teachers who were thinking of bowing out. Our means of persuasion was to point to Kobayashi Sensei’s courage as a budoka, and the importance of being able to rise above political considerations to display a public spirit of friendship and cooperation.
Fortunately, everything somehow worked itself out, and we succeeded in weathering the storm. This was a sobering experience to say the least, and I learned a great deal about Japanese culture and the politics of large organizations.
The First Aikido Friendship Demonstration drew over 900 people and was a resounding success. We went on to sponsor three more events in subsequent years, the last taking place in 1988. The Aikido Friendship Demonstrations were among my most unforgettable experiences in Japan. Thankfully, the video record of these events remains as a testimony to the skills and willingness of the participating instructors to share the stage in a spirit of harmony. I think the Founder, Morihei O-Sensei, would have been pleased.
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